A blog about geographical and spiritual mysteries.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dragon Fire Festival and Other Thai Mysteries

The full moon often scalds the Thai landscape with strange surprises, and I find myself holding my breath to see what crawls from the shadows. Who is this emerging from the fields at this dead hour of the night? What is that strange shriek, in a place where no shriek ever has an innocent explanation? I have become a believer--the countryside is riddled with ghosts. And in a small town not too far away, dragon fire erupts from the Mekong River, but only in October, and only when the moon is full.
The fire-breathing dragon apparently spends the entire year resting on the bottom of the Mekong and emerges just once, to show off, on the banks of the chosen town of Phon Phisai. Thousands of locals turn out to wait for the dragon’s breath to rise from the Mekong River. Pink lights burst out of the river on this one night and arc silently into the sky. The town celebrates the dragon’s spectacular display with Bung Fai Payanak (บั้งไฟพญานาค) or the Dragon Fire Festival. The Dragon Fire Parade drums its way down Main Street during the day, and at night a river parade of lighted bamboo floats glides past, to keep the dragon company. This legendary spirit, which some say shielded the Buddha from the rain and sun while he meditated, stirs to life each year at the end of the Buddhist Lent, breathing celebratory fireballs into the sky.
Our journey began on the overnight train from Bangkok to the city of Nong Khai, in a second-class air-conditioned berth. A ticket buys you a private, curtained berth with a reading light, pillow and blanket, and the joy of waking in the middle of the night to clacking train wheels and a star-spangled sky shimmering through your window.
For those who want a tad more adventure and a little less comfort, try the second-class berths with a fan. I enjoyed the warm wind and smells of cooking food and burning wood as we rolled out of Bangkok and into the dark night, but porters came round soon to pull an ugly metal grating down over the window which obstructs all view. I also woke the next morning covered in a fine layer of soot, and the restrooms, which are only marginal to begin with in the air conditioned section, are even less appealing in second-class fan. First-class compartments are perfectly affordable for many western travelers, but a cautionary note to women traveling alone: One woman I know who traveled in a first-class compartment spent the night listening to some drunken male passengers rattle her locked door. Second-class air conditioned berths are quite comfortable and much less isolated. Of course, third class also is available for the budget traveler or truly adventurous—it’s cheap, it’s open-air, and you sit up all night.

When I visited, there was only one hotel in Phon Phisai, the aptly named Hugs and Kisses, which favored hourly rates to nightly ones. To be fair, more extensive options may now exist. But a better option for sleeping accommodations is in nearby Nong Khai, where we de-boarded after our overnight train ride from Bangkok. Nong Khai has numerous guesthouses and even luxury hotels. My favorite is the Mut Mee Guesthouse on the Mekong River, one of the secret pleasures of the northeastern Thailand experience. (www.mutmee.com) My room was simple and un-air-conditioned (fan only) with a communal, cold-water bathroom, although air conditioned rooms with a hot water bathroom are also available. Even if you don’t get your reservation into the Mut Mee in time (and with thousands of people descending on the area to watch the dragon rise, you’d better plan ahead), it’s still a great place to stop for a few hours and rest. Travelers gather round wooden tables in the outdoor dining area beneath thatched roofs and ceiling fans, surrounded by tropical foliage and an expansive view across the wide Mekong River into Laos.
Visitors to the Mut Mee can choose from numerous excellent Thai dishes, and the delicious western menu can be hard to come by in this part of the country, providing a welcome break from the sticky rice and searing spices of northeastern Thailand. In particular, the banana pancakes, French toast and thick, crisp bacon are a welcome sight for many travelers who have been living on rice soup or noodles for breakfast.
By day the atmosphere at the Mut Mee is languorous, with travelers dozing in hammocks or reading paperbacks with feet propped up while the river moves sluggishly past. By night, the dining area takes on a more festive air as more travelers pour in, order beer and swap tales late into the night about the islands in the south, the elephant treks in the north, and the perils and rewards of venturing into neighboring Laos. It’s also an excellent place to gather advice and information from other travelers and the friendly staff about where to go and what to do. When you’re ready to depart for the Dragon Fire Festival, a shuttle service will take you to Phon Phisai, 40 kilometers away.

When we arrived in Phon Phisai in the afternoon, the boardwalk along the river was already bustling with people. Vendors hawked dried squid, speckled bird eggs, cotton candy, balloons, grilled chicken, soccer-sized grapefruit, roasted bananas, beer and soda. Wooden boats dotted the tranquil waters of the Mekong, and opposite us shone the lush green coast of Laos.
We ate at the Khaw Soi 18 Restaurant, which offers virtually every Thai favorite imaginable, from the spicy Issan peasant dishes of som tam and laap muu to the northern red curry dish known as khaw soy, to the well-known staples tom yam and pad thai. Seven of us ate there around tables beneath thatched-roof gazebos overlooking the Mekong River.
After eating, we staked out a spot to sit on the riverbanks, and at dusk we heard a piercing whistle. Was it the sound of the dragon rising from the murky Mekong to breathe fire into the sky? No—it was only the introductory fireworks for the evening. In fact, the entire evening was filled with fireworks, from start to finish—enough to frighten any lurking dragon away. Once it was dark, the river parade of floats began (this also can be viewed in Nong Khai). White lights, and in some cases dozens of candles, covered bamboo structures designed to look like ancient Oriental sailing ships and other marvels. Vendors moved through the packed crowd selling noisemakers and coiled dragon puppets with red battery-powered eyes. Paper lanterns drifted higher and higher into the night until their fiery glow vanished. To add to the mystery, the electricity powering the vendors’ stalls along the river kept going off throughout the evening.
I asked one Thai woman if she “believed” in the dragon fire we all were waiting to see.
“I believe,” she said cautiously, and then cracked a sheepish smile.
A group of Thai schoolgirls handed me a survey in English. Do you believe it’s a spirit? the survey asked. Do you think it’s fireworks? Natural gas? Do you think it should be researched?
“By all means, research it,” I agreed.
An excited roar suddenly rippled through the crowd. People stretched and craned their necks to see.
“Mai mee arai,” people murmured all around me in Thai. “Nothing, it was nothing.”
“Do you believe?” a Thai woman inquired, turning the tables on me.
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,” I replied, and everyone around me burst out laughing.
It was wall-to-wall people and this was a genuine local event, nothing Westernized about it. Moreover, it was fun. The real spirit of this festival lies in the spirited roar sweeping through the crowd every time a light—any light at all—feebly flickers.
And now a deep rumble began to grow in the crowd as people pointed and cried out. At last, I saw it—small red lights, arcing into the air like emergency flares or Roman candles, minus the sparks or smoke or sound. I zeroed in on a tall American with a camera.
“Oh, sure, I believe,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s definitely something.”
“You mean those little red lights?” I asked skeptically.
Were the lights coming from the shore of black, spooky Laos? A controversy erupted one year over the claim that Laotian soldiers firing machine guns into the air created the lights. But the fireballs look too big to me to be tracer fire, and besides, where is the sound? More perplexing, why did I suddenly see the lights of a motorboat in exactly the spot where the fireballs were a moment before?
“Police inspectors,” one Thai solemnly assured me. “They are making sure no one is out there. They are inspecting for fakes.”
This charming detail seemed completely in keeping with the zany, good-natured spirit of the evening—police inspectors in motorboats racing from one spot to another, to ensure that the dragon fire erupting from the deep waters was the real thing. And in the end, it’s authentic local culture and an as-yet-unexplained mystery.

Numerous other events take place in Nong Khai in October, as the weather cools and the rains subside. The Thai-Lao Rowing Festival in mid-October includes a street festival and parade of illuminated boats on the Mekong River. Later in October, the Chinese Dragon Festival sports a parade of Chinese dragons, bamboo-pole climbing contests, Chinese opera, and a five-night festival at the local Chinese school.
And for tourists willing to extend their stay into November, the festival of Loy Krathong is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar. This harvest festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields by releasing floats of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense on the water. There are more spectacular celebrations in cities such as Sukothai, but if you’re already in the area, the Mekong River in the city of Nong Khai becomes a river of candlelight for this one night of the year.

Push open the screen door of this little shop, and the aroma of incense along with exotic strains of Oriental music fill the air. Around the corner from the Mut Mee Guesthouse, the Wasambe Bookshop is tucked into a quiet sidestreet, next door to an art studio and across the street from yoga classes. Inside the bookshop, colorful batiks in bold reds and blues adorn the walls. Outside, a rooster crows though it’s midday, and somebody is cooking rice.
“The idea for this bookstore came to me in a dream,” explains the tall, serene African-American named Michael (born in West Virginia, raised in Detroit) who wound up in this remote part of Southeast Asia, selling books to wayfarers. “From conversations with travelers, I’ve made choices about what to buy.”
What travelers favor includes an eclectic and thoroughly satisfying mix of classics (Anna Karenina), thrillers (Hannibal, The Beach), Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwell mysteries, biographies (the Dalai Lama) African-American literature (Malcolm X), as well as books on yoga, meditation, Buddhism, adventure and travel (Into Thin Air, Swimming to Cambodia, Riding the Iron Rooster). There’s even a children’s shelf with folk tales from around the world.
“I believe our outward journey is a reflection of our inner journey,” Michael explains. “Why do we leave our own country? What are we looking for?”
If you’re looking for more than books, the store also features incense and body oil from India, beautiful Chinese tapestries, Thai clothing, postcards and e-mail service. It’s a pleasant, peaceful place to browse for a book, which you can then read over a pot of hot tea or a pitcher of cold beer at the Mut Mee Guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong River.

I’m trying to picture barefoot Buddhist monks dangling from rope and bamboo scaffolding at dizzying, deadly heights to construct the narrow, winding walkway that I find myself on.
Near the city of Bungkhan, in Nong Khai province, visiting the Buddhist temple of Wat Pu Thock involves an unnerving hike up a mountain on wooden planks seemingly suspended above nothing but air.
The temple is situated on a massive sandstone outcrop that juts up from the surrounding landscape.
The outcrop contains an intricate network of caves and offers increasingly stunning views as you climb. The mountain is climbed via a seven-level series of stairs representing the seven levels of enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy. Rustic monastic residences are sprinkled around the mountain, tucked away in caves and on cliffs. As you make the somewhat strenuous climb, each level feels cooler than before. Indeed, when my friends and I, hot and perspiring, reached a resting place, we were enthralled by the fresh, cool breeze blowing over us. Across the plain, I spotted a waterfall that was miniature from this distance.

The hike definitely gets your blood pumping, but isn’t overly arduous. If you’re afraid of heights, this isn’t the outing for you, but if you’d like to combine a vigorous nature hike with an authentic Buddhist meditative experience, this is well worth the effort.
(also posted on Writers Rising)

Willing to Wander

I’m a big believer in pilgrimages and mysteries—whether it’s to the Mekong River to watch for “dragon fire”, or a mountaintop in Spain where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared, or a dirt road in rural Missouri where a “spooklight” dances, or the deep silence of the woods around a Trappist abbey in rural Oregon. My own understanding of a pilgrimage is that of a quest—I try to take a route I haven’t taken before to a place I’ve never been before, where an answer to a question may or may not be waiting. I’ve discovered that risk and openness usually bring a surprising gift.
When I visited the Trappist abbey recently, the weather was perfect, the hiking trails lush, and the sounds of forest creatures and burbling streams and wind sighing in the tree tops a welcome relief from the concrete and traffic of Seattle. The monks started singing at 3:30 in the morning, punctuated the rest of the day with prayer and singing, and finished chanting at 7:30 pm. I tried to sleep as late as 6:30 am, but with bells ringing and other retreatants rising early, it was difficult. It’s only a place you should visit if you’re willing to enter into the “monastic rhythm”—and it’s a little jarring at first coming from the hyperactive outside world. My favorite time of day was the 7:30 pm prayers and songs in the candlelit chapel as a monk pronounced, “Brothers, we are now one day closer to our eternal home.” That comment sent a shiver down my spine, reminding me that we are all pilgrims, and each day is another mile in the journey. Every day is a new mile we haven’t traveled before—and we don’t really know where our wandering will ultimately lead or what our destination city will look like. I guess that’s what travel used to always be like. Now, we tend to be fully informed and completely connected over the internet before we even take our first step. Yet adventures still await those who are willing to wander. After departing the abbey, I just started driving in the general direction of the Pacific coast. Along the way, I spotted hand-made signs and arrows proclaiming simply, “Monastery.” Naturally, I had to follow. The signs led me along deserted stretches of two-lane highway. I was just about to turn around when I reached another arrow pointing to an unpaved road. The unpaved road dead-ended, and when I stepped out of my car, a beat-up old tom cat came racing out to greet me. Maybe the monks’ silence left the cat starved for conversation. I had arrived at the only Brigittine monastery in the world, where cloistered monks chanted and made chocolate. I took a few moments to pray in the “Our Lady of Consolation” chapel and, of course, I bought some chocolate. For some reason, the winding roads on this little pilgrimage kept depositing me on the doorstep of those hidden ones who are devoting their lives to praying for the rest of us. Apparently, even cats can be cloistered.
In future postings, I’ll share about some other pilgrimages—and mysteries—that have captured my attention, and taken me as far afield as southeast Asian and Spain. (also posted on Writers Rising.)